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More homegrown fruit and veggies could help with food security

We can do a lot to influence our own health status, like pursuing a diet that includes more fruit and vegetables.

We’re continually told by dieticians and federal health officials that our consumption levels are woefully lacking. They’re not trying to turn us into vegetarians; rather, they’re trying to get us to take advantage of the many attributes fruit and vegetables offer, including fibre and a multitude of vitamins.

And while no one likes being told what to do, more than ever, it’s important to stay healthy. Recovery from almost any disease is easier when you’re healthy. With a global pandemic upon us, that’s a huge consideration – as is access to the fruit and vegetables we need.

We count on imports in a big way. They’re a $7.3-billion industry and they help fill gaps in the winter that our domestic greenhouse industry is working hard to address.

But how about produce we import the rest of the year, though?

Food insecurity that marked the early stages of the pandemic made many people wonder if we should count less on anything we have to import. When it comes to basics like food, an exporting nation is bound to look after its own citizens first. Maybe the pandemic has finally taught us this lesson.

All this makes a new report from the Greenbelt Foundation very timely. The report, called “Plant the Seeds: Opportunities to Grow Southern Ontario’s Fruit and Vegetable Sector,” talks about a $2.2-billion expansion of fruits and vegetables grown in Ontario.

Not surprisingly, much of that growth would happen in the Greenbelt, the huge swath of productive land in the south and southwest that is supposed to be protected from irreversible development, the kind created by housing and industry.

The report focuses on opportunities in the fresh market, in particular. According to its research, more local production of fresh grapes, pears, strawberries, garlic, eggplant and sweet potatoes would be met favourably by consumers.

For example, it says Ontario field-grown strawberry production could expand to meet nearly 40 per cent of the market demand. Another 3,700 acres of grapevines could be planted, representing more than $26 million more in revenues to growers. Another 300 or so acres of sweet potatoes would satisfy nearly 80 per cent of Ontario’s demand. Pears and eggplant could expand by 25 per cent. And 1,000 more acres of garlic would mean $10-$15 million more to growers.

Such production would help Ontario with its economic recovery. Rural Ontario would be the main recipient of more production, but it would involve a chain of activity involving growers, marketers, retailers, industry organization, research and development institutions such as the University of Guelph, and governments.

But while this all sounds ideal, here are a few realities to consider.

First, productive land is expensive in the Greenbelt and elsewhere, and growers will need it to expand. Second, many fruits and vegetables are perishable, some much more than others. Can growers count on storage and transportation that will make sure consumers have access to it in a timely way?

Interestingly, the report talks about vertical farming possibilities. That’s certainly a non-traditional approach, one that I thought was a pipedream until I saw such an operation in Guelph a few months ago and it blew me away. It was totally self-contained, productive and apparently on its way to profitability – all without using more farmland.

Once again, it will come down to cost. To what extent are we willing to pay for homegrown food and for food security?

When the shelves are bare, that’s an easy question to answer.

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